Million Dollar Main Street: City of Canandaigua Celebrates Centennial

Main Street in the city of Canandaigua boasts large stately homes, proud civic structures, dignified historic churches and stylish commercial buildings. A portion of the busy, four-lane thoroughfare is divided by a grassy median. As the street slopes downward through the business district, Canandaigua Lake beckons invitingly from the distance to travelers and residents alike.

This year, the city and the sparkling Finger Lake are in the spotlight. Canandaigua is celebrating 100 years as a city. A new exhibition opened this spring at the Ontario County Historical Society Museum and Research Center, which reveals how and why Canandaigua made the transformation from village to city in April 1913. Along with many other changes to the city during its first century, the museum display documents how its Main Street was dramatically altered over 60 years ago.

Canandaigua’s Centennial anniversary was heralded on January 1, 2013 with the dedication of the rare clock atop Canandaigua’s City Hall. Thanks to community support, the clock is now in working order for the first time in over two decades. The handsome yellow and white public structure has overlooked Main Street since it was built as the county’s second courthouse in 1824. With its recently restored timepiece, the building is an example of the community’s adaptability and endurance. Fittingly, the city’s centennial logo is a graphic adaptation of the tower clock.

The centennial celebration continues all year. A Centennial Planning Committee is overseeing numerous events offered by local cultural and civic organizations. City of Canandaigua Historian Lynn Paulson has piqued readers’ interest in the community’s past with a series of weekly articles in the local Daily Messenger.

At the end of April, to chronicle the city’s first century, the exhibit “City of Canandaigua: One Hundred Years in the ‘Chosen Spot,’ 1913-2013” was unveiled at the Historical Society museum. The exhibit begins by describing what prompted Canandaigua’s change of municipal status. Artifacts and interpretative panels also focus on how the municipality responded to women’s suffrage, prohibition, the Great Depression, World War II, post-war growth, preservation and on-going development. Paulson has served as a consultant on the exhibit, assisting long-time Society curator Wilma Townsend.

One of the several far-reaching physical changes to the city involved the upgrade of its Main Street in 1950. The street, then brick-paved, was described in the local papers as “rut-filled.” Widening the street and constructing arterials was actually part of a statewide effort to improve the transportation infrastructure. Detailed plans were introduced in 1948 by the New York State Department of Trans-portation, and reconstruction began on October 6, 1949, with Governor Thomas E. Dewey officiating at the groundbreaking.

The exhibit describes the sweeping change. “Trees lining Main Street were removed, sewer lines were replaced, telephone poles moved, re-grading was done to accommodate the wider street and new center mall, and finally paving. The price tag for the city’s new modern street was $1,000,000.”

Beginning at the intersection with East Lake Road and continuing northward to just south of the first Thompson Hospital, Main Street was widened on each side and separated by what was then called a “mall” or median. North of the hospital, and what is now Wood Library, the median was eliminated. The roadway decreased and continued to the intersection with Buffalo Street. A local newspaper reported that some older citizens who were watching the construction remembered the hand-laying of the brick pavement 46 years earlier.

When construction was completed less than a year later, the opening of the new “Million Dollar Main Street” was marked by a big parade and the 1st Annual Canandaigua Finger Lakes Festival on August 19, 1950. Canandaigua’s Mayor George Urstadt was joined by Governor Dewey to cut the ribbon and open the new Main Street. Local newspaper advertisements saluted “Our Million Dollar Main Street.”

“I remember it well,” says lifelong Canandaigua resident Jane Stickler, who recalls watching the parade from her family’s home at 137 North Main St. across from the hospital. The festival parade boasted 30 floats, clowns, elephants, horses, antique autos and bands that marched from Howell Street to Kershaw Park. There was even a Miss Canandaigua. Stickler, who can be found on many summer weekends working at the Chamber of Commerce Visitors’ Center on Main Street, describes the parade as “the best of her life.” Other festivities included a three-ring circus held at the lake, a band concert at Kershaw Park and a street dance in front of the Court House. The day was topped off with a huge fireworks display from the City Pier.

Since this major 1950 reconstruction, Main Street has naturally continued to evolve and adapt to changing times. Coincidentally, in 2013, a three-block-long stretch of Main Street referred to as “downtown” is undergoing another significant transformation. After trees were removed in 2011 for the replacement of an aging gas main, the city faced the dilemma of how to landscape and rehabilitate the central business district. A project called “streetscape” is scheduled to get underway as early as the spring with the construction of planting beds or Bioretention areas. The so-called “rain gardens” are designed to absorb rainwater and prevent it from going into the storm sewer and, eventually, Canandaigua Lake.

Find out what started it all

While visiting the historical society, don’t miss an exciting new long-term exhibit, “Desires, Opportunities, Change: the Shaping of Western New York, 1650 to 1797.” The exhibit takes the visitor back 300 years to see interaction between different nations and cultures. Ontario County was originally much larger, encompassing what is now all of Western New York. The exhibit shows how this expansive area was shaped by the ambition, conflict, compassion and compromise of its inhabitants. There are innovative and interactive activities, as well as 12 colorful, nearly life-size historical characters representing native peoples, Europeans and early settlers.

Funded by a federal grant from the Institute for Museum and Library Services, the engaging exhibit will appeal to school age children and adults alike. For more information, visit www.ochs.org, or call 585-394-4975. The Ontario County Historical Society Museum is located at 55 North Main St. in Canandaigua. Admission is free and donations are welcome.

Take a business district audio tour 

What better way to explore Canandaigua’s Main Street than by taking a walking tour? With the city’s centennial celebration as the impetus, Canandaigua’s Wood Library partnered with the Ontario County Historical Society to create a self-guided audio tour of the city’s Historic Business District.

Downtown Canandaigua’s busy South Main Street boasts an appealing array of historic architecture fronted by wide sidewalks. Adaptive reuse has insured the survival of many of the largely 19th and early 20th century buildings. The former firehouse of the Erina Hose Company on Niagara Street once served to protect the local citizenry, but, today, has been transformed into Angelic Dreamz, a retail establishment.

The new audio tour was accomplished with help from nearby Finger Lakes Community College, where narration from a written brochure was recorded by community leaders. The tour includes 18 locations, beginning with the stately Ontario County Court House. After the audio was paired with historic photos, the digitized tour was uploaded to the web, making it accessible from anywhere. To download the tour with a map, go to the tour website woodlibrary.org/audiotour. Hear the audio by pressing the play symbol on the picture included in each post.

Don’t have a mobile device? No problem, says Ron Kirsop, assistant director & adult services librarian of Wood Library. A technology grant provided the library with five iPods loaded with the audio portion of the tour. Anyone 18 years or older can borrow one accompanied by a tour brochure as long as they have a valid Wood Library card. The library also offers free CDs loaded with the tour, which can be used on a car stereo. “We wanted to give as many options as possible,” says Kirsop.

For more information, visit Wood Library’s website www.woodlibrary.org, or call 585-394-1381.

Read & do more

For Canandaigua City Historian Lynn Paulson’s regular columns and other centennial stories go to the Messenger Post website, www.MPNnow.com, and click on the “Canandaigua Centennial” hotlink at the top of the home page.

For more Centennial activities, go to the City of Canandaigua’s official website, www.canandaiguanewyork.gov, and click on “2013 Centennial Celebration” at the bottom of the left menu bar to see the full “Calendar of Events.” Like Canandaigua Centennial on Facebook (facebook.com/CanandaiguaCentennial) for updates, fun facts, history, photos, contests and more. For further details, please call 585-394-0787, ext. 1.

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Facts about Building New Main Street

from the August 12, 1950 Daily Messenger
• Length 1.79 miles
• Width at Lake St. (now Lakeshore Drive) 40 feet
• Width at West Ave. 68 feet
• Width at Buffalo St. 64 feet
• Width of Mall 14 feet
• Concrete Depth 8 inches
• Asphalt 2½ inches
• Excavation Begun April 5
• Concrete Begun May 11
• Concrete Finished July 1
• Asphalt Begun July 17


by Laurel C. Wemett